Genre: Run-‘N-Gun Developer: Treasure Publisher: Sega Enterprises Players: 1-2 Released: 1993
If there’s one thing clearly understood about owning a Sega Genesis, it’s that Gunstar Heroes must be a part of your library. Say what you will about Treasure and how they’re overrated, untalented, etc; but you cannot deny that this is easily their finest hour on the system and arguably their best game overall.
It’s ironic that such a revered title could be so simple in concept yet so profound in execution. There at first seems to be nothing overly complicated about it. No combos, no secret areas, nothing to unlock. At a glance, Gunstar appears to be just another run-‘n-gun shooter ala Contra: Hardcorps or Midnight Resistance. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see a finely tuned engine that overflows with quality and a game play dynamic that requires quick thinking and even some strategy.
The story is pretty decent for the genre. The Gunstar family has always protected the planet Gunstar 9 and the family patriarch, White Gunstar, has been safeguarding four powerful gems that can destroy the world if misused. Colonel Red, an evil dictator, has kidnapped and brainwashed the Gunstar’s oldest brother Green, and used him to obtain the gems. It’s up to you to save your sibling and retrieve those gems!
You choose between Gunstars Red and Blue. Five weapons are at your disposal: force, lightning, chaser (like hunter), and fire. Two weapons can be carried simultaneously and can combined to form an even more powerful attack. While Red can run and fire at the same time, Blue must stop to shoot. This makes a huge difference in game play because certain bosses are easier to kill depending on which player you choose (and there are a lot of bosses!). In tight situations, both brothers also have distinctive close attacks. Red can perform a powerful body slam, while Blue can do both flying and drop kicks. You can also toss foes away from you and this even works on bosses! The Gunstars also have a neat Strider-like slide maneuver that hits multiple times and is useful for getting away from and larger enemies. Additionally, pressing both A and B buttons at the same time makes you guard. This doesn’t work against all attacks, though, so use it wisely.
The coolest thing about playing with a friend is that you can grab and sling him at enemies, taking out a bunch at a time. If one of you dies and continues, however, the other player loses half their health. You only get one life, which means you can’t just blast your way from stage to stage. Luckily, there are health items to be found by killing some mid-level bosses as well as by destroying boxes and barrels.
Aside from its stellar game play, Gunstar Heroes turned heads in 1993 because of its incredible graphics effects. To be frank, the Genesis simply shouldn’t be able to do some of the things this game does. Scaling, rotation (the heli-plane boss must be seen to be believed), and tons of multi-jointed bosses will leave your jaw bolted to the floor until the credits roll. Only a few other titles share this level of technical perfection (Contra, Vectorman, and Adventures of Batman & Robin, for example) and how Treasure was able to make the system jump through so many hoops with such little memory still makes me scratch my head. This was the game you showed to the Genesis naysayers back in the day and this was the game that shut them up.
The eye candy budget wasn’t all spent in the special effects department. The graphics themselves are excellent, with tons of parallax and a huge color palate. Everything is detailed and well animated; more proof as to why Treasure knew the Genesis better than anyone save Sega themselves. All the stages have something unique to them and are superbly designed. There are even a couple of shmup stages where you pilot the Gunstar’s ship! Also, wait until you see the Dice Castle, where players must toss a huge die to move across a game board, fighting multiple bosses and collecting items along the way. It’s something out of left field that was very original and fun as hell. Of all the levels in the game though, Seven Force’s stage is by far my favorite, as it’s a clever twist on the overused mine cart element.
Gunstar is also a game you’ll want to play through a stereo system. Booming bass and a rockin’ soundtrack compliment the action perfectly. Explosions are loud and thunderous, and the brothers’ furious yell as they hurl their foes really pumps you up (well, I at least thought it was cool).
My only gripe is that there are unlimited continues. This makes blowing though the game a sure thing, whether you’re playing alone or not. Adjustable difficulty levels go a bit towards making up for this and you at least continue from the beginning of the stage, as opposed to starting where you died.
Don’t let my foolish quibbling dissuade you from playing. Gunstar Heroes is simply one of the best games ever made, period. Too many games use beautiful graphics and stellar effects to cover up a lack of game play instead of complimenting it. Gunstar proves that both can exist in tandem and produce awesome results. Play it. Buy it. Savor it. This is as good as it gets.
SCORE: 10 out of 10